By Liam Lacey
The Highwaymen, a movie starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the Texas lawmen who hunted down the 1930s celebrity gangster couple Bonnie and Clyde, opens for a week theatrically before going to its home on Netflix, which grants it a certain immunity from inevitable criticism.
Even touching the subject of Arthur Penn's 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, will condemn the new movie to some backlash. Penn's film is often regarded as the kick-off of the New Hollywood, a taboo-busting generational milestone, which The Highwaymen has no aspirations to meet.
What we have is a solidly crafted reworking of some familiar Western tropes by director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), a Texas native who shows care for the period details, with handsome cinematography on the original Lone Star State locations. The film offers something of a riposte to the much-fetishized tale of flashy young killers, which has inspired any number of movies about love on the run.
Not only are Bonnie and Clyde not given their side of the story here, they're deliberately given minimal face time. Bonnie Parker (Emily Brobst) is first seen in the opening prison-break scene, a petite figure hobbling on a bum leg in fashionable pumps. She's witnessed from behind, spraying machine gun into the air like some malevolent imp. Clyde Barrow (Edward Bossert) is even less of a presence, seen fleetingly as a blandly handsome young face under a grey fedora.
Cut to the capital, where straight-shooting Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (a typically feisty Kathy Bates) brushes past clamouring reporters to call an emergency meeting. Reluctantly, she accepts the advice of prison systems chief, Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch), to bring the Texas Rangers out of mothballs for the dirty job that has to be done. No one is putting a polite spin on the job. What the job requires, he says, are a couple of "mankillers." Specifically, he wants retired ranger Frank Hamer.
Costner, as Hamer, is first seen hunkered down gazing at the landscape, and then, in a reverse shot, in the same position on his well-manicured lawn in front of his white mansion. The evaluating squint and gruff baritone convey the old Gary Cooper cool, though the paunch and greying temples suggest Hamer's been enjoying the comforts of civilization for a while. Those comforts are provided by a wealthy spouse (Kim Dickens) who understands a man's gotta do what he's gotta do, even if it means leaving her and the pet javelina that guards his yard.
Clearly, it's time for him to get back out on the range. After acquiring a sizeable arsenal of weapons (a bit of vintage gun porn for the fans), Hamer picks up his old colleague, Maney Gault (Harrelson), a heavy-drinking unemployed mess, haunted by the violence of his past. They're the traditional Western heroes, men with a talent for violence who are compelled to use their murderous gifts to restore the community to order. Among other things, they're offended by the sheer celebrity of Bonnie and Clyde. They're not just criminals, they're symbols of pervasive social decay. Thomas Newman's score, which toggles between bluegrass fiddle moans and lofty strings, reinforcing the overall Western mode.
The screenplay by John Fusco (Hildalgo) is, in part, a historical correction effort. The real Frank Hamer was portrayed as a buffoon in the original Bonnie and Clyde film, bent on personal revenge after being humiliated by the Barrow gang. (His widow Gladys sued Warner Bros. for defamation and earned an out-of-court settlement).
Mostly, his script tells the story in broad, efficient strokes, though there is an irksome tendency for characters to stop and deliver long expository soliloquies explaining their backgrounds. We learn that Hamer was a former seminary student, with a black-and-white sense of morality. Maney, in contrast, sees things less starkly and is tormented by guilt for the men they have killed.
Costner and Harrelson have an agreeable grumpy rapport as they spend a lot of time together on the Texas roads, through grand vistas and dirty shanty towns. At times, the film is almost too convincing in depicting the plodding, repetitive nature of detective work. Occasionally, there are flutterings of comedy: The two men are heavy and slow-footed in chasing the Barrow gang's teen accomplices through miserable Depression shanty-towns; Maney's frequent pee breaks suggest a prostate problem.
All this is a small distraction from where we know this is going. The old Rangers may be in decline but carry the old West's vast capacity for violence. The final destruction of Bonnie and Clyde, shot on the actual Texas location, is mechanical and brutal. It has none of the slow-motion ballet of pretty flailing bodies in 1967 film, a sequence often described by enthusiasts as "orgasmic." This version is more of a brutal extermination job that ended Bonnie and Clyde's lives and blew them into the pantheon of gangster mythology.
The Highwaymen. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Written by John Fusco. Starring Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert. Playing Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox on March 22, and is available on Netflix from March 29.